By Gilbert Garcia
The first thing you learn when you arrive at Taco Land on Monday night is that there will be no spinning wheel in operation tonight.
Regulars at the underground rock haven might be tempted to inquire why the subject of a spinning wheel would even be broached at the door of Taco Land, but this isn't a standard alt-rock club gig. It's Mobile Monday, a variation on Grackle Mundy, the wildly thematic performance residency that Buttercup maintains at Robert Tatum's downtown art space, the Wiggle Room.
Buttercup formed in 2000 out of the ashes of The Unables, a revolving-door combo in which everyone played an instrument that he hadn't mastered. Singer/guitarist Erik Sanden recalls: "We picked songs that we loved and destroyed them."
Sanden went on to form Buttercup with bassist Odie Cole and drummer Jamie Roadman, and the group hit its creative stride when veteran guitar virtuoso Joe Reyes joined in 2002. From its inception, this prolific quartet has worked to break down the de rigeur barriers that exist between musicians and listeners. Singer/guitarist Erik Sanden attributes this effort to an adolescent epiphany, "seeing the Descendants, where the singer came out and touched my shoulder for a long time and stuck the mike in my face. There was something about the power of that."
Last year, the group found a conceptual ally in local artist Robert Tatum, who invited them to perform every week at his 811 Art Space. After Tatum lost the lease there, he moved his headquarters to the Wiggle Room (so named because of its history as a Piggly Wiggly grocery store) and Buttercup has been a fixture there since January.
Grackle Mundy is a loose, intimate affair that good-naturedly tweaks the bottom-line mentality found at most bars. Audience members bring their own beer and can choose between paying a $4 cover or taking their chances with a spinning wheel. There's usually a spread of food available, and every week the walls are covered with new art pieces.
Every Grackle Mundy carries its own different theme, unless the band members find themselves unable to conjure up anything that week. These are some of the highlights: Pajama Party, in which the pajama-clad band members showed videotapes of themselves playing sleep-related songs in Reyes' bedroom; Letter Writing Night, in which they joined the crowd in writing postcards and letters between sets; Town Talk, a talk-show parody; and Audience of One, in which an usher escorted audience members, one at at a time (or in small groups of two or three strangers), to a dimly lit back room where Buttercup peformed a song exclusively for them.
"The dynamic normally between a rock band and an audience is, 'We're up here, you're down here, and you do what we say,'" Reyes says. "There's all kinds of rote things that happen. There's a hierarchy involved. But it's fun to smash all those things down, and everyone's preconceived notions go out the window when it's Pajama Night."
At one show, they divided the audience into teams, and asked them to provide the group with a title phrase using only the letters of the diatonic notes of the C-major scale. The winning entries were "Beef Cage" and "Aged Dad." Forced to write songs around those titles (and using the letters of the titles as chord sequences), the band ran into the kitchen, shut the door, and penned two songs in five minutes.
Sanden describes "Beef Cage" as "a vegetarian song from the perspective of a piece of veal," while Reyes calls "Aged Dad" "a really sad waltz" about a man too senile to play blackjack properly. "Beef Cage" continues to occasionally pop up in their sets.
Part of the group's appeal is the way it consciously subverts the chest-thumping machismo and implicit sexism that continues to make so many rock bands insufferable. One of their favorite descriptive adjectives about themselves is "feeble," and they clearly regard it as a positive attribute.
With regard to the band's name, Sanden says: "It didn't really mean anything. It's just not super-masculine. It's not intimidating, it's kind of feeble, and it applied to what I wanted for the band."
Even at Taco Land for Mobile Monday, Buttercup finds a way to make a club gig unconventional. They play an early outdoor set in the club's patio, with hot dogs cooking on an open grill. With Reyes, Sanden, and Cole all plugged into a Fender tube amp, they gracefully move from strong originals such as "Open On/Shut Off" to covers of Elliott Smith's "Speed Trials" and Thelonius Monster's hilarious "Sammy Hagar Weekend."
Once inside, they set up sideways, against the north wall of the bar, creating a sense that they're right in the middle of the crowd. Taco Land owner Ram Ayala, a Grackle Mundy regular who recently donated an air conditioner to the Wiggle Room, smiles behind the bar. For one week, at least, he doesn't have to go to Grackle Mundy because it has come to him. •